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The Executive Who Made Winter Gear High Fashion

The Wall Street Journal · 01/07/2023 00:00

By Nick Kostov

In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about the people they turn to for advice, and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous installments from the series are here.

Remo Ruffini has spent the past two decades turning Moncler SpA into a buzzy high-end sportswear brand, pushing a rotating cast of designers to dream up new takes on its signature product faster than the traditional fashion calendar would allow.

At the brand's heart is a single product: the goose-down jacket. Under Mr. Ruffini's direction, the jacket has been reworked in a variety of colors, unusual materials and fits that now drive the company's more than 2 billion euros a year in sales.

Moncler was created by two French mountaineers in 1952 and takes its name from the tiny Alpine village of Monestier-de-Clermont, near Grenoble. To a generation of Europeans, the company was known as the premier maker of winter-weather performance jackets.

By the time Mr. Ruffini, an Italian, bought Moncler some five decades later, however, it had fallen out of style and was on the cusp of bankruptcy.

With Mr. Ruffini at the helm, Moncler became the first company to put puffy down jackets on the catwalk, betting big on splashy events. He managed to persuade shoppers to splurge from $1,000 to as much as $5,000 on a jacket.

He also moved the brand to Milan, where it is now one of Italy's largest labels, with a market value of around EUR14 billion and more than 200 boutiques in 70 countries.

In recent years, Mr. Ruffini has pushed Moncler to move faster, asking designers to create fresh takes on the puffer jacket in a bid to keep the Instagram generation from getting bored.

"You cannot make a three-year plan like 10 years ago," he said. "We make a three-year plan, but you have to surf inside this plan because everything changes every day."

Here are four of his most trusted advisers:

Pietro Beccari Chief executive, Dior

Mr. Ruffini said he first encountered Mr. Beccari when the latter ran Fendi, the Roman luxury fashion house owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE. The two became friends, vacationing together in the mountains and exchanging business advice.

"Pietro is always telling me: 'Brand, brand, brand. Brand is key. Brand is everything,' " said Mr. Ruffini, describing the way his friend had multiplied sales at Dior in recent years as "something incredible."

As an example of Mr. Beccari's success, Mr. Ruffini cites a visit he made last year to Dior's shop on Avenue Montaigne in Paris. "It's not a store, it's an experience," he said.

As well as his business savvy, Mr. Ruffini is inspired by Mr. Beccari's energy, which he says is key for success in the fast-moving luxury industry. When the pair ski together, for instance, Mr. Ruffini said Mr. Beccari is on the slopes from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., with only a 10-minute break for lunch.

"I cannot compare," Mr. Ruffini said. "Sometimes I go skiing with him and I say, 'OK, I go back home. I've had enough'."

Marco De Benedetti Co-Head of the Carlyle Europe Partners investment-advisory team

A former CEO of Italy's biggest telecom company, Mr. De Benedetti joined Carlyle in 2005, and now co-heads the private-equity firm's advisory team in Europe.

Mr. Ruffini said Mr. Benedetti's network of partners at Carlyle was instrumental in helping Moncler to expand around the globe. Sales in Asia last year accounted for almost half of Moncler's revenue.

Mr. Ruffini said he was initially clueless about how to do business in the region. "Marco helped us a lot with this," he added.

Carlyle held a stake in Moncler from 2008 until 2014. Mr. Benedetti remains on Moncler's board and Mr. Ruffini regularly seeks him out for advice. The two sometimes vacation together by the sea and their families meet up, too.

"Marco will never put an answer on the table, but he'll always tell you what he feels," said Mr. Ruffini. "The typical answer for Marco is, 'For me it's not correct, but do whatever you want'."

Francesco Ragazzi Creative director and founder of Palm Angels

Mr. Ragazzi was a friend of Mr. Ruffini's son. When Mr. Ragazzi, now 37, was still a teenager, he asked the Moncler chief whether he could intern at the company.

So started a collaboration that lasts until this day. Mr. Ragazzi -- a keen photographer -- worked his way up to become Moncler's artistic director before starting his own label, Palm Angels, in 2015. The label is a Los Angeles-inspired Milanese streetwear brand that has quickly expanded worldwide.

"I never told him, 'OK, you are the artistic director'," recalls Mr. Ruffini. "He just took that part of the business."

During Mr. Ragazzi's time at Moncler, he would sometimes walk into Mr. Ruffini's office half a dozen times a day to show him ideas, the executive recalls.

"He would push for something more young and street, and I would push for something more conservative," Mr. Ruffini said. "It was a very good mix."

Today, Mr. Ruffini continues to seek out advice from Mr. Ragazzi, who is 24 years his junior. "The most important thing in this world is to know your customer, and know how to talk to them," Mr. Ruffini said. "He's very good at that."

Virginie MorgonCEO of Eurazeo SE

Ms. Morgon is another private-equity executive who got to know Mr. Ruffini during a difficult time for Moncler. Mr. Ruffini had planned to take the company public in 2011, but ditched the listing after bankers were unable to attain the valuation he sought. Instead, he sold a 45% stake to French investment firm Eurazeo, where Ms. Morgon worked.

"It was a tough moment." Mr. Ruffini said. "The company was still small. It was not as organized." It was also a time when Italy's borrowing costs were high and investors fretted over Greece's potential withdrawal from the eurozone.

Ms. Morgon was instrumental in developing Moncler's brand and helping to revamp its management team, Mr. Ruffini said. He also found her experience across different industries invaluable.

"People who are deeply in different industries can help you to really understand the customer," Mr. Rufini said. "How they react in a crisis, for example."

Ms. Morgon is now CEO of private-equity firm Eurazeo, based in New York. Mr. Ruffini continues to seek her advice, which he says is always direct.

"At the beginning, maybe I was quite pissed off," he recalls. "Then I understood that it was much easier, much faster, much more constructive to be very clear, rather than walk around the garden before you get to the point."

Write to Nick Kostov at nick.kostov@dowjones.com

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January 07, 2023 00:00 ET (05:00 GMT)

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